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Cinnamon Spear stresses the importance of education

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Cinnamon Spear knows the value of a good education. The recent Dartmouth College graduate grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in the small community of Lame Deer. The list of her accomplishments in high school and college is as long and diverse as her interests – science, dancing, filmmaking, community activities and ultimately, service to her people in Montana.

“Because of my parents’ experiences going to college, and their understanding of how important education is, they raised me to understand that school is important,” Spear said. “College was expected, and not an option. Many families don’t value education. I’m very glad I was raised in a family that did.”

Spear’s degree in Native Studies, a program for which Dartmouth is nationally recognized, helped open her eyes to the diversity of what being an Indian is. The college’s need-based financial aid programs made it possible for her to attend, as did Spear’s academic achievement. She received half of the scholarships awarded at her graduation ceremony at Lame Deer High School.

But it wasn’t the financial aid that convinced Spear to spend four years in New Hampshire instead of taking a full-ride offered to her by Montana State. She chose Dartmouth after a visit to the campus.

“Dartmouth had a senior fly-in program, so I went to the campus for three to four days. We got to sit in on classes, and we met with the Native American group here. But when I was accepted to Dartmouth, I had a fear of how I would do there, especially knowing that many of my classmates had gone to private schools with better resources. In the chemistry class in Lame Dear, we didn’t even have Bunsen burners. We couldn’t do many things because we didn’t have funding.”

Meet Cinnamon Spear

Tribal representation: Northern Cheyenne Hometown: Lame Deer, Mont.

High school: Lame Deer High School

College: Recent graduate of Dartmouth College with a degree in Native Studies

High school academic achievements: received half of the scholarships awarded at her graduation ceremony; graduated valedictorian with a 4.0; participated in the Montana Apprenticeship Program for three years; as a freshman intern in the MAP program co-authored a 2006 paper in the journal “Microbial Ecology” based on her helping develop a new way to understand environmental samples.

College achievements: Coordinator of the Native Women’s Dancing Society; social chair and service coordinator for the Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Pi Omega Sorority Inc., first historically American Indian sorority; traveled the country as a volunteer as well as to Lithuania and Poland.

Career goal: To work for IHS, entering a pre-medical program at Montana State this fall.

As valedictorian of her class, with a 4.0 GPA, Spear had enriched her education by participating in the Montana Apprenticeship Program. For three summers, Spear spent six weeks participating in hands-on research in science, technology, engineering and math.

She intended on majoring in biology. But like many college students, she switched. In her case, Native American studies, headed by professor Colin Calloway, became her passion.

“After one course and learning so much history, law and policy that I didn’t know, I saw that I was completely ignorant of the experiences of other tribes. I felt that, though I wanted to be a doctor or work for the Indian Health Service, I needed to understand why IHS exists.”

While at Dartmouth, Spear immersed herself in social activities. She was the coordinator of the Native Women’s Dancing Society, made up of young women from several tribes who came together weekly to talk, make costumes, practice and perform. She served as social chair and service coordinator for the Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Pi Omega Sorority Inc., the first historically American Indian sorority. Spear helped create events that fulfilled the group’s mission of serving Native communities. Dartmouth also has a Native American house, a place for students to cook food, play music and commune.

Looking back after her Dartmouth graduation, Spear thinks knowing the experiences of other American Indian peoples – in the past and today – will better equip her when she goes to medical school. She points to the many people she was exposed to, none of whom she would have met back home.

“The network I now have across the country and in Indian country is truly beneficial. If I’d stayed in Montana, I’d only know those in the state. I was able to learn about different cultures, and be exposed to other Native Americans, their languages and beliefs, which is important. That’ll help me later in life, if I choose to work at an IHS facility.”

She said being around the many cultures, international students, races, and people of diverse backgrounds and mindsets was influential in helping her form her own thoughts. “I understand what I stand for now. I wouldn’t have grown so much as a person if I’d stayed close to home.”


Photo courtesy Bethaney Hale Cinnamon Spear during her graduation ceremony from Dartmouth College. Spear graduated with a degree in Native Studies.

While in college, Spear was able to travel around the United States on volunteer trips. She even ventured overseas to Lithuania and Poland. There, she learned about the Holocaust as she helped preserve a Jewish cemetery.

“As a Native American, I have an understanding of genocide that most Americans don’t. Many students in the program were ignorant of their own American history and genocide against Indians. Because college isn’t just about course work; it’s about experiences outside of the classroom that take you places – that make you meet people.”

If there is one thing Spear would communicate to high school and younger students, especially those on reservations, is that so much happens at college that is never conveyed to Native American students beyond academics. That’s why, she says, they don’t want to attend college. She aims to spark their interest because she believes the only way to help people is through education.

“If people get educated, they learn new skills. It’s not just about the degree. If we could get more Indian people to get degrees, teach them about the economy, they could start businesses to boost their job markets. Where I live, teen pregnancy and poverty are problems because people drop out of school because they don’t value education.”

One of her independent study projects at Dartmouth, the film “Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run 2008,” which she produced, documents her tribe’s annual commemoration of the 1879 attempt by Northern Cheyenne people to return home to Montana from government-imposed captivity at Fort Robinson, Neb. Not only did the film screen at Dartmouth, it was shown at career day at her high school. “I can write a 30-page paper, but the film was a venue that more people saw and will see.”

Though Spear encourages an education outside the reservation, she also knows how important it is to learn her people’s ways. “People at home need us as much as we need them. Some people who stay at home don’t realize how important home is. Some need to step away to learn that.” It was hard for her to be away from her family, who were unable to attend her recent Dartmouth graduation ceremony.

“I was heartbroken when she went away to school,” said Spear’s mother, Gladys Limberhand. “But I knew I couldn’t keep her close, because she needed to get a formal education so she could come back and help her people. Her dad did the same thing, and now he helps people. Cinnamon’s going to go far. It comes naturally to her.”

Spear is still focused on working for IHS, and will enter a pre-medical program at Montana State in the fall to finish her science prerequisites before applying to medical school. This summer, she’s spending time with family and friends.

“Now I have the freedom to do what I want. I want to write about the Native American experiences that the rest of America doesn’t know about.”

Influential people in Cinnamon Spear’s life

Mark Burr, a research scientist at the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman, is one influential person in Cinnamon Spear’s life. As her first exposure to the world of academics outside the reservation, the Montana Apprenticeship Program brought her to Burr’s laboratory as a high school freshman. “Cinnamon was the first Native American intern I’d had,” Burr said. “The MAP program is very active on campus, and when I was asked to host a student in the lab, I had no idea who I would get. I asked for the best student they had, and Cinnamon was it.” MAP participants take classes, go on field trips, receive pre-college counseling, learn about financial aid opportunities, participate in research and receive a salary. Burr said Spear hit it off right away with the rest of the laboratory staff, and had a great sense of humor and personality. “Though she came from a different background than most of us, we adopted each other. She came back the next four years, was very motivated to learn and be a role model to other young people. She didn’t want to fit in with her peers, in the respect that many were involved with alcohol and seemed stuck in a cycle of poverty. She’s happy to be different, to stand out.” While interning in Burr’s lab, which studies environmental microbiology by detecting bacteria in the environment using DNA, Spear helped develop a new way to understand environmental samples. This research resulted in her co-authorship of a 2006 paper in the journal “Microbial Ecology,” quite a feat for the first high school freshman to participate in MAP at Montana State. Burr has kept in touch with Spear through her high school and college years, attending her high school graduation with other members of the lab. “I consider her part of the family, and saw her (recently) for lunch in Pine Ridge. She’s very special to all of us in the lab.” Another influential person is Colin Calloway, Dartmouth College professor and former chair of its Native Studies program. Spear’s decision to take his history class, “Invasion of America-American Indian History Pre-Contact to 1830,” changed her focus from pre-medicine to Native Studies. “It is a class that often changes people’s attitudes and perspectives, most often the perspectives of non-Native students,” Calloway said. “It’s not uncommon to switch majors while at college, though. Students often take a class or classes in the Native Studies program and then decide to stay.” Calloway knew of Spear’s plans to go into medicine, but points out that, at a college like Dartmouth with a liberal arts undergraduate focus, students are encouraged to try many different things. “They may stick with their original major, but the philosophy is, whatever you do, whatever your intent is, you will be a better doctor, or engineer or lawyer, or whatever you want to be, if you have a broader experience than only classes in your major. “Cinnamon is a very bright, interesting and enthusiastic student. She was a good student in classes, but was also someone who thinks for herself. It was neat to work with a Native American student who came with insight, knowledge and stories from her own history and to her get immersed more deeply in her history.”